I was back at Tanglewood less than twelve hours after I'd left Friday night, just in time to catch the start of the BSO's weekly open rehearsal. These rehearsals have been a longtime favorite of local residents, who nearly filled the Shed that sun-splashed morning. As with the New York Philharmonic's regular open rehearsals, these
Saturday morning sessions provide valuable insights into the development of a piece prior to it's initial performance. And, since no concert is ever performed more than once at Tanglewood, the BSO is often caught in the awkward situation of working on a program different from the one they will be playing later that evening.
Such was the case on Saturday, when the BSO worked with frequent guest conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos on the program for Sunday, which included two works by Mozart (the Marriage of Figaro overture and the 9th Piano Concerto) and Haydn's Mass No. 10 in C - better known as the Mass in Time of War. (By contrast, the evening concert consisted of Schumann, Bruch and Stravinsky.) de Burgos started off with the Mass, working on the various parts for well over an hour with the full Tanglewood Festival Chorus and BSO. He is one of the world's pre-eminent choral conductors: four years ago at Tanglewood, I saw him lead the BSO and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Brahms' German Requiem; this weekend, he leads the students of the TMC orchestra in their annual concluding performance of Beethoven's 9th.
de Burgos favored playing through most of the sections in full before going back and working on particular passages, which made for a thoroughly engaging listening experience. (By contrast, I was told by my neighbor Peggy from Northampton - an open rehearsal regular - that BSO music director James Levine's rehearsals are "absolute torture," indulging in his predilection for repeating the same passage over and over until it meets his exacting standards.) The excellent soloists - all relative unknowns - were soprano Sally Matthews, mezzo Paula Murrihy, tenor Eric Cutler and bass Dietrich Henschel. The chorus - which sang from memory - was clear and brilliant. When they reached the end of the Agnus Dei, the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause. de Burgos turned and briefly acknowledged the ovation - and then turned immediately back to the musicians to issue one final set of instructions.
After a break, a piano was wheeled to the center of the stage and pianist Emanuel Ax emerged from the wings, wearing a bright orange polo shirt and khakis, chatting up several old friends in the BSO. (I had the good fortune to meet Ax in 2004, during my time in the American Symphony Orchestra League's "Essentials in Orchestra Management" seminar, and he is one of the warmest, most genuine musicians I've ever encountered.) He is also one of the world's great interpreters of Mozart, and he breezed through the concerto as if he were playing scales. He played through each of the movements in full, issuing brief comments to the orchestra at the end of each; clearly, Ax was the authority in this music, with de Burgos readily deferring to his choices.
The rehearsal ended with the program opener: Mozart's Marriage of Figaro overture, which de Burgos stopped twice before letting the BSO play through to the end. He offered a few final words to the musicians, then put down his baton with a loud "Thank You."
Figaro provided a natural transition to the day's next musical event: a fullly staged performance by the TMC fellows of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, his final collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.Tanglewood's operatic performances have traditionally been held in the Theatre: a rustic wood structure dating from 1941, located adjacent to the old manor house. The Theatre won't win any awards for comfort: the wooden seats are narrow, and the lack of air-conditioning makes a matinee performance stifling hot.
But, when you are surrounded by the nonstop genius of Mozart for the better part of four hours, you quickly forget these immediate discomforts and simply fall into the sublime music. Fortunately, director Ira Siff, in shifting the setting to contemporary Miami Beach, provided a genuinely amusing staging that illuminated the opera rather than distracted from it, as is often the case in contemporary productions. (I spoke to one patron who was relieved not to encounter "yet another Eurotrash production.") Among the more memorable touches were a chandelier that bore an obvious resemblance to those in the Metropolitan Opera House (a cheeky tribute to the Met's music director James Levine, who was in the pit for this performance) and an amphibious military vessel marked with the number "KV 588" (also known as the catalog number for Cosi fan Tutte.)
The performances were universally strong, but particularly impressive were Ramone Diggs as Ferrando (bowing at left) and Lauren Skuce as Fiordiligi, whom Ferrando dupes into falling for him, despite the fact that he is engaged to Fiordiligi's sister, Dorabella (Kathryn Leemhuis), while Fiordiligi is engaged to Ferrando's friend, Guglielmo (Michael Weyandt). For those unfamiliar with the opera, the deception is in response to a wager levied by the elder Don Alfonso (Paul Scholten), who aims to demonstrate that Dorabella and Fiordiligi are just as capable of infidelity as other women. The hilarious Emily Albrink rounded out the cast as the maid Despina, who, according to the script, occasionally appeared in the disguises of doctor and lawyer (complete with tennis shoes).
If there was any downside at all, it was that the sheer breadth and density of Mozart's music caused my attention tended to wander throughout the warm summer afternoon. Which is an even more remarkable testament to the stamina of the young orchestra, who played brilliantly. Levine no doubt spent dozens of hours in rehearsal with them in order to capture the same cadences as in his numerous Met performances of Cosi (several of which I've heard over the past decade.) During intermission, I overheard another audience member offer the highest possible praise: "I can't even tell that they're students." (That's Paul Scholten hamming it up during the curtain call at right, with a mildly-disapproving Levine looking on from his left. Not exactly the kind of display he's accustomed to in front of the Met's gold curtain.)
I jumped into my car immediately after the applause ended and made my way through a series of winding country roads to Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, home of Bard College and the Bard Music Festival, now in it's 18th year of presenting the music of a single composer over two weeks of concerts, films and symposiums. This year's festival is devoted to the music of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), generally regarded as the first major English composer since the death of Henry Purcell in 1695.
The prime mover of the festival is the polymath Leon Botstein, who is the founding director of both the festival and its resident ensemble, the American Symphony Orchestra, while simultaneously sustaining his role as president of Bard College, which he has headed since 1973. When I first visited Bard in 2000 for the Beethoven festival, the orchestra was a ragtag bunch of freelancers that played in a tent on a sodden campus green. Since 2003, the festival has been held in the extraordinary $62 million Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Frank Gehry in his famous shredded-aluminum-can style and completed the same year as his renowned Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Inside, the 900 seat Sosnoff Theater was filled with plush, roomy seats, which felt like a trip to the Cineplex after the sweltering Theatre at Tanglewood.
To be frank, Botstein's talent is concentrated more in his probing intellect (as encountered in the program notes and symposiums) than on the podium, but he has wisely surrounded himself with a truly excellent group of orchestra professionals, including Eric Wyrick, concertmaster of both the New Jersey Symphony and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and Jonathan Spitz, the principal cellist of those same ensembles. And, whatever Botstein lacks in pedigree, he more than makes up for in style, dressing the entire ensemble in matching black suits and open black shirts, while himself sporting a shaved head and an embroidered black vest.
For this concert, Botstein also brought on the formidable Australian pianist Piers Lane, who has been professor of piano at the Royal Collge of Music in London since 1989 and is something of an authority in turn-of-the-century English music, often referred to as the "English Musical Renaissance." After an Elgar overture and a set of orchestral variations by Hubert Parry, Lane performed C.V. Stanford's Concert Variations on an English Theme: a de-facto piano concerto whose virtuosic solo writing far outclasses the rather prosaic orchestral score. Stanford was a Tory and a member of the musical establishment, and his music sounds more like an academic exercise than a work of art. (He and Elgar did not get along.)
The second half of the concert focused on Elgar's music, and was far more rewarding. It began with two of his Pomp and Circumstance marches - including No. 1, known in the U.K. as "Land of Hope and Glory," but best known in this country as the music that has accompanied just about every graduation ceremony in living memory. It's a rare occurrence these days that a piece of concert music can be a unifying event, taking everyone back to a particular time and place in their personal history. But, when it happens - as it so often does at more mainstream concerts - it is the most magical of artistic experiences.
The concert concluded with Elgar's great orchestral masterpiece, the Enigma Variations. Compared with the variations by Parry and Stanford, this music soared, sending a charge straight up my spine. In particular, the variation called "Nimrod" (named after Elgar's musical editor August Jaeger) was incredibly lush and grand, and I can't imagine a dry eye was left in the joint. Botstein - who chose to conduct the Enigma without a baton - got the dynamics, which range from bold and triumphant to dark and mysterious, just right.
The festival continues this weekend with several recitals of songs and chamber music, a Saturday concert devoted to Elgar's orchestral music (including The Crown of India and Falstaff), and a Sunday matinee featuring a rare complete performance of his choral masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius. Tickets are still available for all events at the Bard Music Festival box office.